Betty Duffy

Monday, June 6, 2011

Remember the days of yore when children frolicked in nature all day? (Actually, I sort of don't)

My husband ordered a Pawley's Island Hammock, wide as it is long, then told the kids who were already swarming it, top and bottom like little anthropoids, that only one person could be on it at a time. Our last hammock met its doom after twenty or so productive years on my parents' screened in porch, within a year of becoming ours, when the kids ganged up on it, two and three at a time to try and bounce each other off. Was it time that did the damage, or stress, the hammock's own resistance to any activity that is not rest?

In any case, we've spoiled their fun again, like we did with the trampoline (another hand-me-down from friends). Once they'd ripped up the netting and cushions around the edges, it seemed more prudent to remove the incompetent protections rather than give the kids false confidence in them. But once again, we had to enforce a one child policy, which effectively drained them of any interest in the trampoline at all. What fun is danger if it can't be shared?

There's been lots of reading in our family lately about the necessity of unstructured playtime outdoors. My dad ordered Anthony Esolen's book, "Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child" and read us excerpts about how kids should be sent out early and often to engage their imaginations in the landscape and the luxury of endless hours outdoors. My husband and I, also, have been passing back and forth, Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder." Again, the concept of children whiling away the hours outdoors.

I say, well and good. But there are obstacles at times to its working out exactly how you want it to. I was talking to my cousin recently about her upcoming move out of the burbs to a small acreage, about how she's looking forward to living without the scrutiny of neighbors, so she can "get those mo-fos (sic) a trampoline and lock them out of the house."

I'm share her vision, and we already have the benefit of both trampoline and distant neighbors. But this morning, a wonderfully mild, overcast and comfortable summer day, I sent the mo-fos out, and they spent the rest of the morning trying to get back inside.

"There's nothing to do."

"I'm hungry."

"I'm bored."

After giving them a few suggestions like, dig a hole, make a tree house, ride your bike, jump, swing, get a book and read it in the shade--I turned the lock and they all began to panic. They ran around the house to the front door. They banged on windows. The five-year-old began screaming so loudly, I worried that my neighbor--who is eighty years old, deaf, and four acres away--might judge me.

I don't let my kids get on the computer at all, or play video games, or watch much TV, a DVD every now and then, so it's not like they get too much screen time and need to reacclimatize themselves to self-structured playtime. Their favorite pastimes are legos and trading cards, writing in journals, reading books, and following me around aimlessly, asking for food. Are these books purporting a natural affinity towards nature during childhood just hearty nostalgia for ages past?

Did I ever as a child, enjoy being hot, itchy and bored? Not for one minute. As a grown-up, I've encouraged myself to spend more time in nature, but only rarely is it a blissful wonderland, where I lie around shivering at the majesty of it all. There's beauty to be had, sure, but it's often difficult to access without running into mosquitos, ticks, Poison Ivy, Stinging Nettles, intense heat or cold, and myriad other dangers and discomforts.

My parents didn't move to the farm until my siblings and I were all safely ensconced in our own marriages, so if I was outside as a kid, I was on the porch reading, or on my bike, doing banana seat stunts in attempts to lure some other kids out to play with me. Only rarely did neighbor kids cross the invisible lines between our backyards, possibly because one of our neighbors had a pool to which it was notoriously difficult to obtain entry. More than once I was yelled at by a spazzy-haired woman who only gave notice of her existence if you crossed into her yard.

There was a window of time when I was young enough that I didn't bore easily or feel the discomforts of nature, but I was old enough to ride my bike up and down the street visiting what was left of the neighborhood's vacant lots. My sister and I made some trails through a vacant lot next door, which was subsequently razed to build a brick ranch house with black shutters, for a yuppy couple with two Cocker Spaniels. It sounds trite to say that that was the end of that, as though the loss of one little acre of woods would spoil the love of nature in a child, but somehow, it did.

Still, I was getting sent outside quite a bit to fend for my own entertainment. I remember taking my little make-up purse out to the end of my driveway, sitting there on the asphalt putting on lipstick until two older neighborhood girls, Abra and Natalie, walked up and asked if I wanted a make-over. It was just what I was hoping for, and I closed my eyes and unwittingly let them do my face up like a clown. When I came inside and saw the final effect, it somehow sealed my distaste for any further neighborhood affiliations. There was nothing out there for me.

to be continued...


Erin said...

Wow. That's kind of a sad story. I grew up in the country and, sure, there were times that I was bored, but mostly we always had new neighbor kids to play with and we rarely didn't enjoy being outdoors. There was always a creek to explore or a tree to climb or a swing or a bike to ride or a fort to defend... I guess living in town is different for kids?? I'm curious to see how this story ends.

Liz said...

When I was fourteen, I was stuck babysitting my nephew and two nieces for one entire summer. One day, I was so tired of them running in and out of the house, I actually locked the doors. They were not happy. They screamed and yelled, and I felt like a child abuser...for the last 35 years. I laughed out loud reading this today...what a relief. ;)

Rebekka said...

I grew up on a forested acre. (As a family we also did an insane amount of hiking and camping in general.) We were outside a lot, crawling around in the woods. Retrospectively it's amazing we didn't all drop dead of Lyme disease. We played pioneers and/or Indians, built forts, had Barbie safaris, drew incredibly complicated street maps on the driveway and rode our bicycles on them... But these were all spontaneous. I'm not sure you can force kids into creative play outside just by locking them out. (I know it didn't work when my mom did it!)

Young Mom said...

I lived like 50% of my childhood before 12 years old outdoors. Playing with my siblings in the mud, the street, the trees and everything else. And we lived in town (although we did have a coul da sac) I think we were the dirtiest kids on the block!

Kimberlie said...

I was just moaning to my husband about how much time our kids spend inside because a) it's freakin' 98 degrees outside, b) our backyard is in serious need of a mow and is the size of a postage stamp anyway, and c) there are hardly any kids in the neighborhood.

When I was growing up, my sisters and I would literally run from the house after breakfast, MAYBE come home for lunch, pop in for dinner, and then only return for extended time at dark, probably after a game of "dark tag." Only rainy days drove us inside. We had a brook in our yard we explored, we rode our bikes everywhere (my mother would never even think to drive us to our activities), and playdates did not need to be scheduled two weeks in advance.

I think why my kids, and possibly yours, can't handle lot's of outside time is that without other kids to make it interesting, it's just all the same faces you see inside. Why not be inside and more comfortable?

I'm a lot older than you so I can really get waxing nostalgic at times. :)

Owen said...

No. I don't. I was born and raised in the city. We did have a ravine running right along our property line and until it became the sole domain of perverts we kids did play down there but really, no, I have no memory of anything close to frolicking in nature.

Laura said...

Ditto what Owen said

lissla lissar said...

I'm not sure about frolicking in nature: I was raised in the city, but my summer memories are building tipis, digging giant holes in the back garden, running up and down the street, playing dragons and giants and princesses and knight, and biking everywhere. I was incredibly unhappy with structured activity until I was in college.

Sally Thomas said...

I lived in the burbs growing up, and we played outside constantly, though a lot of what we played was re-enactment of what we saw on television, which we also watched constantly and unregulatedly (celebrity guest lineup on MatchGame74, anyone?): Land of the Lost, Daniel Boone which we saw in reruns, etc.

Our house had a big backyard, so we played a lot at home, though we also roamed the neighborhood at will. Once I remember playing with this bunch of kids who had made a clubhouse in some lady's juniper shrubbery down by the street -- the big dare was to climb down through the storm drain in the curb at the edge of this clubhouse, under the street, and up on the other side. I was way too claustrophobic to climb through the drain, so was still sitting there in the bushes when the lady of the house came to shoo us all away, with stinging words of rebuke.

I don't know how nostalgic I am for all that -- it wasn't that golden, but just what we did. And the benign neglect which allowed us to do all those things sometimes wasn't that benign. If you got hurt at certain kids' houses, it wasn't like their mothers would get up off the couch to help you. So there was that, as well as the fun. And sometimes, because I was a shy, cautious kid, I would feel almost sick with anxiety over things we were doing (like climbing through storm drains) and wish that somebody would order us to do something else -- preferably somebody nicer than the lady whose bushes we were playing in.

I think what made it work, when it did, was that our parents didn't know what we were doing and probably wouldn't have approved of half of it. If they'd told us to go play these things, we'd have been bored out of our minds by the very suggestion.

I am procrastinating, even at this moment, about finishing a print review of Esolen's book. In fact, I came here to think about it, because as much as I love what he says, sometimes I think, really? But then I *remember* stuff like that . . .